Last Saturday, as India was celebrating a famous cricket victory over Australia in Perth, NDTV’s Ahmedabad office was ransacked by a mob calling itself the Hindu Samrajya Sena. The alleged provocation: an sms poll on the network that had asked viewers to vote for painter M.F. Husain as a possible Bharat Ratna. Only a week before that, an IBN-7 broadcast van was damaged in Mumbai, allegedly by supporters of Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Their grouse? The channel had questioned the manner in which Thackeray had supported a group of men accused of molestation on New Year’s Eve to the Home Minister. A few months ago, journalists in Patna were attacked after they reported on the possible involvement of a Janata Dal United MLA in a murder case. Last year, the Star News office in Mumbai was badly damaged by another little known group, offended by the channel’s coverage of a Hindu-Muslim marriage. In 2006, a CNN-IBN car was burnt outside the Uttar Pradesh assembly by a mob, only a day after the channel reported on BSP leader Mayawati’s disproportionate assets case.
In all the instances, a clear pattern emerges: a faceless mob, often belonging to an equally unknown organisation, gets its 15 seconds of fame by taking the law into its own hands. Violence becomes the substitute for logical argument; anonymity provides an alibi and a disturbing licence to kill; spurious asmita or self- respect becomes the justification and television the soft target. After all, what better way to find yourself on prime time TV than attacking a television channel’s crew? The camera lens is the window to a wider world, reaching out to millions of viewers. What better way to express yourself than destroy the very instrument that could leave you exposed?
If you can’t physically touch Husain, then try and attack any symbol connected with the artist, be it a painting exhibition or an innocuous sms poll. If you can’t stop Hindu-Muslim marriages, then shoot the messenger carrying the story. If you can’t enter the courtroom to stop the judicial process against your leader, allow the writ of the mob to prevail over the rule of law.
The profile of the ‘mob’ is also familiar. A majority of them are young, mostly unemployed, desperately seeking an identity and relevance in an increasingly chaotic and competitive world. Faced with the threat of marginalisation, being part of a Sena or a politician’s armed militia provides an individual with at least a sense of ‘being’, an identity that gives some meaning and excitement to a life otherwise spent in drudgery and deprivation. Do I want to spend the rest of my life in a queue for water before sunrise at Dharavi, and then an even longer queue for a job? Or do I want to be part of a group that promises me upward mobility, through a clever mix of money and muscle power?
The image of tearing down an Aamir Khan film poster seems far more attractive than avoiding the pot-holes in the mucky bylanes of the slum pocket. Call it ersatz machismo, or simply urban anomie, it is so much easier to be married to the mob than be engaged to the harsh realities of daily living.
Nor is this only the big city phenomenon that it perhaps was a few years ago. The original Senas might have emerged in the grimy and unforgiving cauldron of Mumbai’s backstreets, but they have now spread their web across the country. What started off as groups seeking a political identity — like the Shiv Sena — are now re-inventing themselves as the morality police, guardians of a so-called cultural ‘purity’, based largely on a growing conflict between ‘them’ and ‘us’ at different levels of society, between conflicting notions of social conservatism, religious identity and rapid westernisation. Then, whether it is a group that threatens women without headscarves in Srinagar, or young couples in a park in Meerut, or those wearing jeans in a Chennai college, it is clear that there is a growing geographical spread to the culture of moral absolutism through the use of violence and intimidation.
The real culprits though are not the faceless mob. Much like the TV camera, they are, in a sense, the soft targets. The actual responsibility must lie with the law enforcers, those who are supposed to ensure respect and adherence to the rule of law. How, for example, does one explain that the same Gujarat government that gets tough with farmers who don’t pay their electricity dues, cannot act against those who ransack art exhibitions in Vadodara or even dare to enter the Sabarmati ashram and assault Narmada Bachao Andolan activists inside the Mahatma’s abode of non-violence? How does one explain that the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra, which gets tough against bar dancers, chooses to turn a blind eye to the destruction of valuable archival material in a prestigious library in Pune by the so-called Sambhaji brigade? What can one expect from successive governments in UP and Bihar that openly side with criminal elements? Mayawati can demand the highest security for herself, but is she willing to provide any security to those who are routinely targeted by the political gangsters of UP? Nitish Kumar may have done a shade better after he arrested his MLA Anant Singh for assaulting journalists, but did he have the moral or political courage to remove him from the party despite his long criminal track record?
The fact is that the ‘faceless’ mobs are often an extension of the ruling clique, deriving their authority and even legitimacy from the support and protection they are provided by the police and political system. A policeman in a majority of the states who chooses to act independently runs the risk of offending his political bosses, and being transferred or suspended with immediate effect. Police reforms exist on paper: in the real world, whether it be a constable or an IPS officer, there is little security of tenure or insulation from political interference. UP is again only the worst example: in the last eight months, Mayawati has transferred around 400 senior officers.
The media, too, aren’t blameless. How many times are we willing to stand unitedly against political intimidation of various forms? The occasional dharna or indignant statement in support of press freedom is only a camouflage for a genuine failing to take a collective approach against the targeting of the media. News organisations will report when their own interests are compromised. But how many of us take a principled stand when, say, a channel in the North-east is pulled off the air, when a competitor is singled out, or when a Tehelka was harassed into virtual extinction by the government in power? And what of those of us within the media who feed on images of orchestrated vigilantism and mob violence designed for the camera? Are we ready to be confronted with a serious credibility check that we so desperately need to strengthen our case in the face of the growing physical and financial threats?
Perhaps, we are victims of this age of instantaneous television images, where this hour’s story is the next bulletin’s history. Indeed, within hours of the attack in Ahmedabad, all TV channels were gleefully celebrating the ‘chak de’ spirit with half-crazed crowds in different corners of the country. Maybe the muscular hyper-nationalism on display is only a flip side of the mob fury that is waiting to erupt on the streets. Maybe some of the manic faces painted in tricolour have also been part of the crowds that have attacked the media in the past. Maybe we just can’t tell the difference between the good, the bad and the ugly any longer.